by John Murawski
After nearly 28 years of challenging the rates utilities charge their customers for electricity, natural gas and other services, Robert Gruber is stepping down as the state’s top consumer advocate.
Gruber, 67, has been one of the nation’s longest-serving public advocates in utility matters. His departure will create a vacuum just as state regulators get set to consider one of the state’s most complex public policy issues in years: the proposed corporate merger between Duke Energy and Progress Energy.
Gruber, who has been mulling retirement for months, notified Gov. Bev Perdue on Wednesday that he intends to step down as executive director on June 1. That gives the governor barely three months to vet candidates and nominate a successor, who will have to be approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Duke and Progress plan to file their merger application by the end of March, and Duke will seek a rate increase soon after. That creates a steep learning curve for the incoming advocate, who will fight on consumers’ behalf in policy debates that will affect electricity rates for millions of customers.
The agency Gruber oversees, the Public Staff, is one of the key players in rate reviews and other complex proceedings at the N.C. Utilities Commission. With a staff of 85 lawyers, engineers and auditors, the Public Staff is the public’s law firm set up to counterbalance the legal firepower of Duke Energy, Progress Energy and other utilities that seek rate increases to pay for new power plants, fuel costs and other expenses.
The Public Staff represents North Carolina’s residents in utility rate cases involving power companies, natural gas utilities, private water utilities, moving companies, phone companies and ferry boats.
In his characteristically self-effacing manner, Gruber downplayed his career and imminent retirement.
“One of my friends said that in three months I’ll be ‘Robert Who?’ ” Gruber said. “I’m just trying to fairly balance the interests of the ratepayers and the utilities. That’s what we do in regulation.”
Gruber saw himself as a legal technician who shied away from political gamesmanship. He said the most unnerving aspect of the job was having to get reappointed by the governor every six years, a political hurdle he cleared five times with four Democratic governors and one Republican.
“You didn’t know how long you’d last,” Gruber said.
He said his entire time at the Public Staff he never sought to parlay his regulatory experience for a better-paying job. After he retires from the Public Staff, Gruber says he has no intention of working for a large utility company, as other regulators have done.
“I’m not cashing in,” he said.
Gruber couldn’t pinpoint a single reason for his decision to retire now, with two years left in his term.
The timing of Gruber’s departure means that his successor will serve just two years before facing reappointment. North Carolina’s Public Staff directors serve six-year terms, and Gruber’s replacement will fill the remainder of Gruber’s term, which expires in 2013.
Gruber acknowledges the lack of job security will narrow the field of willing candidates. He was not willing to discuss whom he believes to be a worthy successor.
Public Staff’s role
Edward Finley Jr., chairman of the Utilities Commission, said the Public Staff’s role is to broker compromises between competing interests – utilities, industrial power users, homeowners – in the end leaving everyone a little dissatisfied with the outcome.
“They try to do what is right rather than what is popular in the short term,” Finley said.
That means the Public Staff director has to take his licks from time to time. Gruber has come out publicly in favor of nuclear power as the best viable option to meet future energy demand, and he supports a change in state law that would make it easier for power companies to raise rates to pay for new nuclear reactors.
Some environmentalists and low-income advocates see Gruber’s agency as too much part of the system.
“We’d like to see the Public Staff more aggressive in challenging the utilities,” said Jim Warren, director of Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network. “The intense pressure and influence from the power companies on the entire state government is pervasive and corroding.”
Unlike the nonprofit advocates, a Progress Energy lawyer said the Raleigh utility got a fair shake with the Public Staff. Len Anthony, general counsel of Progress Energy Carolinas, praised Gruber’s awareness of utility concerns.
“He understands the utility business as much as anyone,” Anthony said.
In the Duke-Progress merger, the Utilities Commission will have to determine whether the union benefits the public. It’s expected that the Public Staff will push for conditions, such as rate freezes, to have the merger approved.
A native of Fayetteville and a UNC Chapel Hill graduate, Gruber has been with the state government for 38 years, first with the state Attorney General’s Office, then as general counsel for the utilities commission, before becoming the Public Staff’s third director in 1983.